Ten years ago, Royal School Armagh, one of the smallest competing teams in Ulster lifted the schools’ cup. The huge, ancient trophy was lifted by their totemic captain John McCall. The traditional Belfast stranglehold on the competition was broken up for one year by a team that was defined by unity. Two months after that trophy was lifted, two members of that immensely talented team tragically died.
Armagh is a small picturesque town and the Royal School sits proudly within it. It retains a tight knit school community that extends out of its walls. In 2004, few people gave the schoolboys from the Orchard County much of a chance of winning the competition. The established rugby schools in Belfast of RBAI, Methody and Campbell could often count on fielding up to eight senior teams of enthusiastic schoolboys every Saturday, in Armagh, three full senior teams was considered an achievement.
Their captain John McCall refused to be intimidated by the dominance of Belfast schools. He was considered a leader even outside of rugby. His flame hair and stocky physique made him a conspicuous figure within the school body. He was known for his kind nature and wanted to become an architect. He was one of the most talented schoolboy players in Ireland. He led by example from flanker, sometimes switching to number 8 to drive the ball if he felt the team needed him to. He refused to take a backward step on the pitch frequently gathering the whole team into a huddle during breaks in play to tell every player what was expected of them.
In the year below, Todd Graham was competing for a place in the 1st XV. Unusually for a Royal School Armagh team, it was littered with representative players for Ulster and Ireland schools. Graham came from just across the border in Monaghan. His parents were working in Zambia, so he became a boarder. Highly academic and popular in the school community, Graham was being touted as a key player on next year’s team but would still compete for a coveted place in the 2004 team.
These two players were joined by a cast of characters that made this team unique. It was a team that was devoid of ego, that was something left for the Belfast schools. The team trained, studied and socialised together, comforted by a unity that would never be replicated by anything after their schooldays had passed. Adam Bartholomew was the most accomplished schoolboy scrum half in Ireland. He doesn’t play rugby now, his focus is on his pharmacy career, but he remembers the campaign vividly.
“That year just had a really good feeling, on that run we never had a easy game, we had to beat all of the big schools, Inst, Methody, Ballymena and Campbell. We were from a small town so we were just buoyed by this massive wave of support that just got bigger every game. In many ways our pack carried us, and me and our outhalf Jonny Gillespie just poked it into the corners and let them do the rest.”
Jonny Gillespie is still involved in rugby unlike his school half back partner, working for the Ulster branch as a community development officer. In those days, he was a gifted out half known for his polite request that his school mates kept chatting in the ground during penalty kicks. Silence put him off. He describes the cup as a series ferociously physical games even measured against today’s brutal schoolboy hits.
“I remember a fair few arm wrestles in the mud. There were four brutally physical games. You don’t have to face all those schools except during cup times. We got lucky in terms of a good draw that let us play some games at home. Our pitch in Armagh was pretty sticky, but we were used to it and that played to our advantage.”
Royal School Armagh had not won the cup since 1977, before that you had to go back to the 1800s for a victory. After they beat Methody in foul conditions in the early rounds, whispers grew louder in the town that a trip to Ravenhill could be on the cards. Willie Falloon, then an Ireland Schools backrow, is the only member from that gifted team to make it as a professional rugby player representing Ulster, and latterly Connacht.
“It just got bigger and bigger, I remember the nerves got to me at one stage. I was walking to art with John (McCall) before our semi final against Ballymena and told him I was afraid we would lose. By the time I arrived in class, I was utterly convinced that we would win, that was the effect he had on all of us.”
On the morning of the games, the boys’ fathers would gather for breakfast together, and travel en masse as a group. On St Patrick’s Day for the final against Campbell College Belfast, they were joined by the whole school population and anyone with a vague connection to Armagh. Former Ireland winger, Kenny Hooks coached the boys and remembers the day vividly.
“It was very special, although it’s now bittersweet also. There were so many parents who supported us, and that support carried right through the school body. When we lifted the cup, we went back into the changing room at Ravenhill, and I said to the boys that in ten years we will have a reunion and that’s what we are going to do.”
McCall played an emphatic part in the final, as most expected he would. Graham was a replacement, his time was going to come next year. Nobody in that shabby dressing room in Ravenhill was thinking beyond the party that would be thrown in the town that night. Ten days later, McCall died on a rugby pitch in a game against the Junior All Blacks representing the Ireland Under 19 team. His young team mate Graham died in a car crash while visiting his family in Zambia two months later.
The support that had united this brilliant team to the summit of schools’ rugby helped bring those 20 boys comfort when they needed it most. Various parents’ homes were opened to the players who spent many nights sitting together, deriving support in silence. Today, those players are spread all over the world. Some rarely think about rugby now. Life has moved on. They are approaching their late twenties and have mortgages and careers to focus on. Yet, when they all reunite at their old school on St Patrick’s Day and look down on the distinctive rugby pitch low below steep grassy banks and trees that holds such precious memories for them, they will remember two dear friends and team mates who cannot join them.